When coronavirus restrictions on outdoor gatherings during the pandemic were first implemented in March 2020, Christian preacher and lay minister Mike Overd didn't let that stop him from preaching in the streets as part of his ministry.
The 56-year-old has spent well over a decade evangelizing as a street preacher, offering Bibles to passersby and praying with pedestrians. He continued his efforts even when gatherings were restricted by the U.K. government last year.
While in his usual spot preaching at Taunton town centre in Somerset, England, on April 2, 2020, Overd was confronted by police from Avon and Somerset and became the first Christian preacher to be prosecuted for violating COVID-19 regulations banning outdoor gatherings.
Officers instructed Overd to go home after a member of the public filed a complaint against him.
Overd, however, questioned the officers' actions toward him and refused to go home.
The Christian Legal Centre, which represented Overd in his case, noted that he was carrying out his work as a minister by "offering pastoral support" for those who were struggling during the pandemic while also adhering to social distancing guidelines of standing just over 2 yards (2 meters) apart from others.
After being ordered to leave the premises and go home, Overd asked the officers whether authorities were "now banning Christian workers from coming to help people?”
The officers then proceeded to confiscate Overd’s Bibles and forced him to leave the area. Overd was also fined $83 (£60).
After contesting the fine, Overd waited 547 days in anticipation of his court hearing, only to learn that the Crown Prosecution Service had decided to drop his case.
Tom Allen of Christian Concern told The Christian Post that on Sept. 1, he was informed by the Crown Prosecution Service that “the prosecution is no longer proceeding in this matter and that the trial listed for Sept. 6 will be vacated at Weston Magistrates Court.”
“The fact that it has been quietly dropped ... after dragging on for 18 months, shows that my case, and the laws in general, have been all about control and intimidation,” Overd said in a statement shared with CP, noting that he was ridiculed and even lost friends over his decision to "bring a message of hope to people struggling at the start of this crisis."
He added: “A year-and-a-half on, with draconian measures still in place and more Christian preachers being arrested than ever before, I knew I was right to take a stand and I am glad to have been vindicated. It was always wrong for Christian ministries and churches to be shut down at such a moment of need. Never in our history have so many Christians that sought to support the most vulnerable in our communities been treated so badly by the authorities."
The BBC reported in April that “more than 85,000 fixed penalty notices have been issued in England since the pandemic began, and 8,000 in Wales,” citing a report that was released at the time by members of Parliament.
A Joint Committee on Human Rights comprised of cross-party members of Parliament determined that fines of nearly $14,000 (£10,000) for breaking COVID-19 regulations "are muddled, discriminatory and unfair," especially for the poor and those who are "unfairly targeted" by police.
The report said in part:
"We are aware that more recently the police have moved more quickly to enforcement action. This is problematic given the confusion over the state of the frequently changing law, and in light of confused communications from the Government which continue to conflate guidance with the law. A heavy-handed approach to enforcement in such circumstances risks unjustly penalizing a wide range of behavior, in circumstances where there are insufficient safeguards in place to protect people from arbitrariness and unjustified interferences with basic human rights."
“Looking back to the start of the pandemic, I knew that something was not right with the power the police had been given by the government," Overd added. "It did not sit right with me sitting at home and not going out to preach when people were in need."
In Overd’s case, which was originally scheduled for a court date last Friday, his lawyers argued that Overd had been out on the streets for the purposes of “voluntary or charitable services'' while adhering to coronavirus regulations.
Lawyers further stated that the regulations, as interpreted by the police officers on that day, “were disproportionate and constituted an unreasonable interference with Overd’s rights under European law and English common law,” Christian Legal Centre said.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, added in a statement: “The coronavirus regulations required society to willingly surrender basic freedoms. Many courageous Christians, seeing the danger in the laws, simply refused to close down their outreach Christian ministries and stop helping people."
"For that many have been disproportionately punished," she added. "Mike is one of many Christian preachers and outreach workers who have been intimidated and fined during this crisis, but who have ultimately been vindicated and told they have not done anything wrong. Christian street preachers are now being arrested every month in the U.K. for preaching the Gospel. This is a phenomenon in our history unique only to the 21st century.”
Williams said she finds the powers given to the police during the pandemic to be setting a “dangerous precedent, which are continuing to have a ripple effect despite a return to relative normality.”
“We said at the time when this story happened that the coronavirus regulations would have far-reaching implications for Christian freedoms in the U.K., and this has proven to be so,” she added.
Overd’s case was also supported by Christian theologian Martin Parsons, who submitted his expert testimony to the Crown Prosecution Service in which he stressed: “street preaching is an important part of evangelical Christianity, even during epidemics.”
“A long and continuing practice of street preaching and other forms of open-air evangelism in the U.K., which is seen by evangelical Christians as being an essential part of fulfilling Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to all people, particularly those who are unlikely to ever enter a church,” Parsons said. “During times of epidemic this has been viewed as being particularly important as helping men and women to find ‘peace with God.’”
“From the perspective of Christian public theology and church history the use of coronavirus regulations to prohibit street preaching raises significant issues relating to the development of freedom of religion in British constitutional history,” the theologian concluded.